Why Wilshaw is probably right

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Like so many other departments there is often a tendency to give a disproportionate amount of time and resource to year 11, particularly at key points within the year and with certain groups of pupils. I’ve worked at three very different schools and in each case it’s been largely the same: the most support, the greatest amount of intervention and the best teachers are dedicated to one fifth of the main school population. In many respects this is understandable, and in such a high stakes accountability culture it is probably unavoidable. This is our present reality.

But every year I wonder if the situation could be different. I vow to change things in my department by investing more heavily in teaching and learning at KS3 in an effort to ensure that when pupils get to Year 11 they are much better prepared, more independent and do not need quite so much support or intervention. And every year it’s the same. I am never able to deploy my best, most experienced teachers to Years 7 and 8 because of circumstances beyond my control, such as unforeseen late departures throwing a spanner in the allocation works, or having to assign more experienced colleagues to marginal (but often tricky) GCSE groups. These teachers, who more often than not have other responsibilities, then don’t have the hours left for any KS3 teaching – a problem that has meant that I myself as Subject Leader have not had a year 7 or 8 class for over two years!

Don’t get me wrong: we review the success of KS3 at the end of each year – the curriculum, teaching, text choices, schemes of work, resourcing, methods of assessment, etc. I cannot tell you how many times we’ve tried to make APP work. It doesn’t, and we are currently in the process of designing our own method of assessment that does away completely with National Curriculum Levels, and gives pupils and teachers more meaningful feedback on progress. KS3 pupils are certainly not badly taught; there are some cracking teachers who teach years 7, 8 and 9: enthusiastic, committed and incredibly inventive colleagues who inspire their pupils every day.

But these teachers are often still in their professional infancy, and as might be expected from professionals still learning their art, they have not yet reached the height of their powers. Whilst the pupils in their classes make good progress, I wonder if they would progress even more in the hands of someone at the absolute top of their game, the 8 years or so teaching experience that Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan cite – in their exposition of the importance cultivating Professional Capital in raising standards – as the time where most teachers are at their peak.

Likewise, how much better would early years pupils do if I threw as much additional resource into their development as I currently do with Years 10 and 11 – resource that would probably have a greater long-term impact. I  I realise that teaching for 8 plus years does not automatically make you a great teacher. It doesn’t, and we all know of teachers whose years of working with teenagers have clearly had a corrosive effect on their passion and effectiveness. Yet one would hope that these instances are not the norm, and that with every year spent teaching young people – making mistakes, but fewer, and learning from them – teachers grow stronger: that their experiences make them better equipped to help pupils to make progress more quickly. In my experience this level of experience and knowhow is rarely let loose on Years 7 or 8, pupils who would probably benefit the most from the experience of teachers on top of their game, having arrived at secondary school eager to learn and capable of establishing a different ethos.

And this is why Sir Michael Wilshaw is probably right when he says that the brightest primary pupils don’t make enough progress in the majority of state secondary schools. Put bluntly, because of the accountability measures put in place by successive governments determined to lay claim to how their lot increased standards, the currency of more able students has had less value than those on the margins of whole school headline figures. This has had two perverse effects. One, that a disproportionate amount of time, expertise and resource is given over to one or two Year groups, and two within those Year groups higher ability pupils are less likely to receive the same level of support and intervention to help them excel. The best, most experienced teachers are often assigned to GCSE classes, where their brief is to get vulnerable (and valuable) groups of pupils over the line. Some pupils might never get to see the best teachers in a given department, unless of course by the time they get to Year 11 there are in danger of not making progress. 

To a certain extent, this is changing with the increasing use of more rigorous (and fairer) expected progress measures for subjects, together with holistic value added becoming a more of a yardstick for whole school success. Of course, this will help force schools to play closer attention to the progress of all pupils and not just those on the cusp of crucial outcome measures. But what is perhaps needed even more than this is a change in the culture of school accountability itself – a system that always places pupils, rather than numbers or statistics, at the centre of education. Because whilst schools continue to be held accountable to a limiting range of statistics and pitted in competition with each other, their limited resources will always be directed towards those areas that yield the greatest (most transparent) gains.

These gains may or may not be in the best interests of the pupils themselves.

What blogging has done for teacher CPD

In this, my first blog, I thought I would reflect on how I came to blogging, and in this and later blogs consider some of the ways I see the sharing of ideas and approaches will help inform my practice, and the practice of the teachers in my department.

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In ten years of teaching I have seen a great deal of change in the educational landscape, perhaps no more so than of late under the stewardship of the current Secretary of State for Education.

Probably the most significant change, however, is the advent of teachers using social media exchange ideas, views and resources. The proliferation of thoughtful bloggers and Twitter users like @HuntingEnglish, @Learningspy and @realGeoffBarton (all of whom I admire greatly) has probably done more for the CPD of those teachers lucky enough to follow them than any other kind of more traditional INSET. Indeed, in the 10 months or so that I have actively been reading blogs and Twitter feeds, I have learnt a great deal that I might otherwise have missed – from current ideas about good practice to educational research and policy.

I remember how things were very different. In my NQT year, rather unfortunately, my inspiring Head of Department left on maternity leave at Christmas and was not replaced. In a school with challenging behaviour and generally low standards of achievement I was left to my own devices, teaching two year 11 groups without any real accountability or guidance. It was pretty much a case of picking up a set of books you liked and teaching them to the kids. No target grades, no expected progress and intervention still very much an abstract noun.

Fortunately, I think I did ok, and in a perverse kind of way I actually thrived on the autonomy. I enjoyed the sense of responsibility in the midst of adversity, and the ‘in at the deep end approach’ definitely helped me to get to grips with managing poor behaviour and understanding how to design effective lessons. The rest of English team were very supportive, even if there was no distinct leadership. To be honest, I am not too sure how well I would have taken to being coached, or how responsive I would have been to other people’s input into my teaching. It’s shameful, I admit, but nevertheless true. 

Much of my flippant attitude was probably shaped by my experiences of CPD, or what often used to pass for INSET at that time: a senior teacher (or worse, an outside speaker) who would proselytize to the staff on any one or more of the following: literacy across the curriculum, behaviour management, Ofsted preparation, mind-mapping, restorative justice, using interactive whiteboards effectively (remember them?), literacy across the curriculum, emotional Intelligence, multiple intelligence and literacy across the curriculum. In short, the planned professional training that I received was poor, and any progress that I made in my teaching was more to do with supportive colleagues, fantastic kids and perhaps my own reflective nature – never feeling like I had done enough!

 

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Now, I’m not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with all or any of the above INSET topics; most of these areas are important drivers of effective learning and pastoral care in any school.

If they are done properly, that is.

I think the problem, or rather my retrospective reading of it, lay in the approach taken, one which I suspect was replicated elsewhere up and down the country – a speaker with an air of knowledge, but more often than not none of the actual substance – who would run through endless slides with lots of pseudo research and pithy quotes. I realise now that many (though perhaps not all) of these speakers were also more often than not passing off material that was not their own: ideas, resources and strategies that they had garnered from external courses, or perhaps filtered down through documentation passed on from central government via the LEA.

I remember on one occasion entering an Assistant Head’s office and being overwhelmed by the amount of folders ranged across the shelves, thick white ones with the yellow and blue insignia to denote the National Strategy. It seemed to me that senior teachers had access to all the information – research, good practice, strategies and resources – whilst us inexperienced teachers, or those without responsibility, were left to receive new ideas and initiatives second hand. We were like worshippers before the Reformation: listening compliantly to the interpretation (and selection) of God’s word from a clergy seemingly much better versed in Latin than us.

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SLT and middle leaders were thus the gatekeepers of educational knowledge, whether through their professional experience gleaned from current research, policy findings, Ofsted Survey reports (or whatever they were called then) and good practice. Ordinary class teachers were left out of the conversation, and quite often dictated to, rather than part of the dialogue. A lot of CPD was therefore predicated on the sometimes too narrow range of teachers’ own experiences, or worse on unverifiable and disputable research.

With the advent of blogging and Twitter all that has changed. Teachers – whether those training to be teachers, or others far longer in the tooth – now have access to a wealth of information that can help them improve their understanding and practice of teaching. Teachers, of all ranges of responsibility and levels of experience, are part of the conversation, shaping ideas and often building consensus derived from people who actually know what their talking about: who are teaching in classrooms and working with students on a day to day basis. There is clearly a place for the ‘expert’, and the senior teacher who draws from his or her own experiences to bring an aspect of teaching and learning into sharper focus. This is fine, but it can’t be all.

Blogging and Twitter have forced a seismic change in the way in which schools deliver INSET. The ability for professionals to challenge received wisdom, to get to the source of what they are told and interpret the Word for themselves has signalled the death knell for the day-long INSET day, and the being spoken at approach that was once the norm. Action research groups, innovative Twilight sessions and new ways in which teachers can meet and share (such as Teachmeet) have led to a much-needed overhaul into how we develop ourselves as a profession. It is now much harder for senior leadership teams to be complacent about teacher development, or to trust in the tried and trusted approaches of the past. And rightly so, since professional capital (a phrase borrowed from Andy Hargreaves) is the key driver to raising standards of teaching and learning in education today.

With social media there is no hierarchy. An NQT can freely exchange views with a senior leader, which can only be a good thing for everyone.

Even when there is disagreement, this still seems to me to be extremely productive in helping us reflect on our beliefs and what we do when we teach young people. That is surely the ultimate goal for all of us.